The Image of OCD in Glee: Okay but Still Bad

I haven’t noticed much representation or misrepresentation of OCD in many media outlets until recently and after I started to have chronic pain.

It’s weird to me that I didn’t because OCD has been a part of my life for much longer.

My symptoms started in high school (about seven years before chronic pain) but I was unaware what was happening because I didn’t know what it was and didn’t think much of it until it progressed (EDIT 12/27/18: ACTUALLY, they started in middle school I realized later).

And I’m not alone.

My anxiety got much worse and I can’t count the number of hours I have accidentally fed my OCD without realizing that it was doing the opposite of helping.

But it was the only way I could cope. I also didn’t have insurance during college so seeking treatment wasn’t something I could do once I realized that OCD was a part of me.

Image of me wearing an orange top and blue jeans on a penny-farthing in a Chicago museum. I was in college.

I had different rituals (and still do sometimes) and it manifested in so many ways that made things even more confusing to me. It made me even more unsure on what was going on.

A disturbing thought could come in one day and turn into something that pesters me for months or even years after.

My untreated OCD was a part of my daily routine and it would feel strange but relieving when my symptoms were sometimes low despite not seeking treatment.

College was a mixture of studying, going to classes, being stressed about tests, working part-time, and OCD poking me and feeling forced to do things I didn’t want to do. It felt like I didn’t have a choice because the other choice felt so horrifying.

I get confused on what’s reasonable to do and what isn’t. I have to constantly question my actions and thoughts because OCD sneaks up on me and I don’t realize it sometimes.

Gif of Alan from the Hangover doing math in his head with imaginary symbols and numbers flying all over via Giphy.

It never stops. It’s not something you can cure. But it’s something you learn to cope with.

This is what I discovered when seeking treatment.

Treatment can also differ depending on the severity.

I have yet to go on medication but I have been working on not doing the rituals and doing meditation to be more present everyday instead of being in my mind. I am also working with a therapist to relieve my symptoms.

The Stereotypes of OCD in Media

Before we get into Glee’s look at OCD, I want to talk about how OCD is already portrayed. I have never come across a form of it than the typical representation.

Let me tell you a secret that shouldn’t be a secret.

OCD is a huge spectrum that can rule over you in so many ways and is so much more complex.

This is true for all mental illnesses.

Representations usually depict OCD as being clean and avoiding germs to the extreme like wearing gloves and wiping things down.

Gif of Sailor Jupiter mopping and wiping things down via Giphy.

I’m not saying that OCD isn’t like this because this form does exist. But it’s just one aspect of it. However, the common theme is distrust and being unsure.

These feelings could be about anything, really.

It could be:

  • you are afraid of germs and are unsure that you washed your hands properly
  • you didn’t lock the door and need to check it dozens of times until you feel like you did it just right
  • something bad will happen if you do or don’t do a certain thing (in a specific way sometimes like taking only five steps to the restroom) even though it is completely unrelated
  • you unintentionally wish for something bad to happen even though you don’t mean it at all and wonder why you thought of it and think you accidentally said it out loud but you didn’t but your mind thought it did so you end up thinking about it more
  • you are afraid of aggravating symptoms again from a previous condition because it was so traumatizing so you do things to the extreme to avoid it
  • you are afraid of saying something you don’t mean

These are just a few examples but media doesn’t explore much of this and barely even scrapes the top layer of it.

A lot times, media likes to cure anything that society deems shameful and mental illness is one of these things.

For some reason, true love can make your mental illness disappear and while it can improve symptoms sometimes when you’re around someone that can keep you in the present (and not in your head) and give you support, it’s not a cure because it doesn’t exist.

Or it’s done really badly like in Monk and medication is seen as negative and no alternatives were done for treatment.

Glee’s Representation: Why I’m Still Not Impressed

Glee is one of the most recent TV shows I have watched that has a character with OCD.

It used to be my favorite show and later on I found how problematic it can be. That’s a story for another day though. I don’t have enough space for it all on this post.

Emma is a high school counselor and is hopelessly in love with a married colleague, Will, at the beginning of the show. It is made very apparent that she struggles with OCD.

A screenshot of Emma from the first episode of the series.

It’s still fresh in my mind so I thought I would discuss her character. There are some good things but there were plenty of things that really, REALLY bothered the crap out of me.

I was thinking I would separate the pros and cons but I feel like I would miss out on discussing key points on certain scenes and would be jumping back to scenes too much.

So I’m just going to celebrate the good while viciously complaining about the bad at the same time.

Emma has the typical OCD portrayal and is afraid of germs. She washes and scrubs her fruit individually and carefully for long periods of time and wears gloves often when she touches something that could be full of unwanted germs to her. She keeps her house and things clean and organized.

In one of the first scenes of Glee, Emma steps on this nasty piece of gum at school. Will saves the day and scrubs it off with his credit card. For some reason, this is deemed as “weird” and “quirky” because she didn’t want to do it.

YouTube of Will scraping off gum from Emma’s shoe.

I may have OCD but isn’t this already GROSS TO EVERYONE?

I don’t know about you guys but I and many other people wouldn’t scrub off a GIANT piece of gum with their credit card and put it back in their wallet.

Why is that an OCD moment? It makes no sense to me. Would you scrape off that gum with your credit card and be okay with it? Maybe I’m talking out of my ass here.

Moving on…

YouTube video of Emma telling Will how one of their students threw up on her.

In this next scene, a student threw up on Emma and she talks about how many times she needed to be deep cleaned despite the fact that the student vomited out of drinking too much alcohol (so it would be unlikely for her to get any illness since that’s not contagious). 

Now this is a more proper take on OCD since I would think a typical person would only need to wash themselves once and not need to follow up with any more washes to “feel” clean.

OCD isn’t about “being” something but “feeling” you did something properly no matter how long it takes. You could be stuck in a ritual for hours. Repeating actions can also lead to you repeating them more and more because it just doesn’t “feel” good enough.

Glee is no different from other shows that use OCD as a way for a character to be “quirky” which is why I think many people use the term loosely to describe a clean and organized space.

But what Glee does different is that it also shows that OCD isn’t just about being “quirky” but how debilitating it can be for a person. There are many scenes with Emma cleaning individual grapes, using gloves, wringing her hands, and how time consuming it can be to a person.

Stress is a major thing that can increase symptoms and I thought they did a great job showing this when Will invites her awful racist parents over for dinner.

This frequently happens to me when I know I will be interacting with others I don’t want to because they are ableist af and whatever I say to them doesn’t ever work. My OCD will poke at me more often and sometimes I would be so distracted by my stress that I forget that OCD is making me do things I don’t want to but it tricks me into thinking that I need to subconsciously.

Stress can lead to a relapse.

Rituals that are done are to make the feelings of stress and uneasiness feel better so it makes sense that OCD can sneak up on you. 

YouTube video of Will and Emma having an uncomfortable conversation with her parents.

Emma isn’t capable of hiding her OCD. Some people can. Some people can’t. Most of the time, I can hide it from others. Sometimes it’s easy to do so but not all the time.

I hide it because mental illness isn’t exactly widely accepted and is seen as shameful. But then again, if you’re disabled in any form you are deemed as shameful because you can’t keep up with everyone else.

Emma’s mom calls her a “freaky-dinky” when she notices her scraping a utensil and this the kind of thing is why people aren’t open about their mental illnesses. Being mocked and bullied isn’t something anyone wants.

The show claims that Emma’s OCD was manifested because her mother encouraged unnecessarily wiping down cups that were touched by a non-white person (because she’s a racist asshole).

I’m not sure how I feel about that.

If you’re extra clean about things that doesn’t necessarily mean you have OCD. But then again, if you’re taught to fear a certain thing (especially when you’re a kid and in this case germs) it could lead to this behavior.

There is a possibility Emma could still have the condition anyway even if her mother wasn’t a racist asshole because it can be genetic and neurological as well. Overall, a lot of things can factor the cause.

There is a whole episode devoted to self-acceptance and Will encourages Emma to be open about her OCD and wear a shirt that highlights that like everyone else is about their “flaws.”

I say, “flaws,” because flaws are only flaws deemed by what society thinks. Not because they are necessarily flaws.

YouTube video of Will encouraging his Glee club to accept their flaws.

Will is putting Emma in a very difficult position because he is forcing her to out her mental illness and it’s obvious she isn’t ready to do so in this episode.

What bothers me the most is that Will gets UPSET at Emma for not wanting to be open about her OCD. WHAT? Emma shouldn’t be forced to share her medical issues out in the world unless she wants to.

I understand that Will wants the students to be encouraged to accept their flaws but getting mad at someone who doesn’t want to share their mental illness when they are stigmatized to hell isn’t something anyone should do.

It’s like being asked what my disability is when I’m using a mobility device. Abled people think they deserve this information for whatever reason and can get mad if I don’t comply. I’m happy to share but sometimes I don’t want to talk about it. Some people don’t ever want to share it to strangers and that’s fine.

Also, if a person doesn’t feel safe or isn’t in a safe space they shouldn’t be forced to be open about their personal life.

I think that’s the only thing that could be a positive about this. Emma is in a safe space since the whole point is to be accepting (and she is unable to hide her rituals so everyone already suspects something) but, in reality, this could lead to harassment and more shame.

It is good to be open about these things but not without the person’s consent and safety.

And I think Will made her feel safe and comfortable to share her condition in the end but again…

This is not the case for many people. If a person shares something like this, they have to be prepared for the ableism from others.

Later in the episode, Will sings some kind of song (this is a musical show by the way) and the lyrics go along the lines of wanting to “fix” Emma.

Will and his Glee club singing “Fix You” by Coldplay

It is harmful for abled people to view others as things that need to be “fixed” because too often that is the whole focus instead of providing people the actual needed support and accommodations.

The lyrics to the song don’t fit well at all.

I get it. Will wants to relieve her of her illness. But you can’t just “fix” OCD.

Emma later decides to see a therapist and she seems to come to accept her condition (which is a major step). Earlier on in the series, she was in form of denial. She didn’t think she needed help.

It had come to the point where it was a normal thing for her to use rituals.

Like I said, I have felt that exact same way. The denial. The shame. The acceptance. The way rituals become a part of your routine that it’s weird and frightening if you forget to do one.

YouTube video of Emma discussing her condition with her therapist.

The therapist says Emma is being kept from being who she is “supposed” to be.

Everyone LOVES this line almost as if it was a pair of Gucci shoes.

But this line bothers me and it’s hard to explain. I will try though. For science.

I don’t have a problem with seeking treatment obviously but the wording of this line only brings more shame. Personally, this would make me more obsessive because I’m going to be constantly be thinking that I’m not “supposed” to be like this. Why am I like this? Why can’t I just not be mentally ill?

There is a line between accepting something and also seeking treatment and/or coping methods.

Gif of Team Rocket from Pokemon starting their famous introduction.
Jessie: “Prepare for trouble.”
James: “And make it double.”

It’s not like OCD will go to hell and never come back after treatment. It is not a cartoon villain that can be permanently defeated. This isn’t Team Rocket. There’s no blasting off here (Well, maybe it can blast off repeatedly over and over but never actually gone).

The symptoms can be relieved. It will ALWAYS be there. There is no cure.

Anyone can relapse back into rituals even after going through treatment at any point in time.

I think the better response would be:

“It is taking the time from doing the things you WANT to do.”

Nothing about who you’re supposed to be or whatever. This Glee therapist needs to be better with her words.

I guess a lot of doctors can say the wrong thing. So they have that going for them. It still doesn’t make it okay.

The therapist compared it to diabetes… Well. I’m going to do the same with my chronic pain.

It is a part of me. It is one of my disabilities. I am disabled. If I thought that I’m not “supposed” to be disabled, that it isn’t who I’m supposed to be, I would be denying a huge part of what I am and be internally ableist.

This could lead me to aggravate my pain more because I’m not “supposed” to be like this.

In a sense, Emma is right formerly. It is a part of her and that’s fine.

I get where the therapist could be coming from. Especially since Emma needs to find a way to deal with OCD because she wants to have a family and doing her rituals while changing diapers or other cleaning requirements would take too much time from her.

Again, there’s a difference setting a goal to have less symptoms and “supposed” to be something that is unrealistic.

Of course, Emma can be a loving mom and still have OCD. Even if her symptoms were severe at some point during motherhood, it’s okay. This is when Emma would hopefully go back managing symptoms (or least give it more focus).

Wrapping Up My Exhausted Complaints

Glee has a lot of good and bad as we analyzed. There is one more thing that shows love to do.

Too often it used OCD as a funny thing. “Oh, look! Emma is so weird! She is putting on gloves because she’s a germaphobe! SO SILLY!”

Nope. OCD isn’t something that is hilarious and it shouldn’t be mocked like this. A lot of shows do this with any kind of disorder or disability. Mental and physical illnesses aren’t your punchline.

Because of this stereotypical representation, many people throw around being OCD for simply keeping their apartment clean and organized.

Let me ask you now.

Do you think you can use OCD like this? I would hope not.

It shouldn’t be a term to describe cleanliness or mock someone.

Not only does it undermine the term, but there is shame and stigmatization, leading to people not seeking treatment because they don’t want to be associated with it.

People who nonchalantly throw the term around don’t realize what it really is because they think it is something silly people do. It’s not something they think can be debilitating and be harmful to those who have it. It’s something they use to describe being “quirky” and “weird.”

It also causes a lot of confusion because as someone with this condition, I would have to clarify with them if they really have it and it forces me to question if someone is being legitimate.

That’s messed up.

It’s almost as if they are faking an illness. This is harmful to disabled people because it becomes a habit to question who is disabled or not.

“Do you REALLY have OCD?” isn’t a question I want to ask but the way people use the term is forcing me to do so.

I also would have to say nowadays I have “real” OCD because I don’t want to confuse others. I shouldn’t have to do this. Abled people don’t understand this or probably never consider it.

I’m still unsure on what to do besides telling people this same explanation. It’s a shitty position.

TV shows and movies sure have a lot more to unravel when it comes to OCD and it is misrepresentful to only present one aspect of it to audiences and to use it mostly for laughs.

It’s no wonder people hide it. It’s no wonder people are afraid. It’s no wonder people don’t seek treatment.

I’ll be waiting for better representation. Meanwhile, I’ll keep complaining until something changes.